The Summer Solstice and Other Stories by Nick Joaquin #booktrailadvent

Philippine folklore, religion, history packed in 3 short stories.

Synopsis of Summer Solstice and Other Stories by Nick Joaquin*: Widely regarded as the greatest Filipino writer of the 20th century, Joaquin continued to write literary and journalistic pieces until his death on April 29, 2004, at the age of 86. Stories in this volume: -The Mass of St. Sylvestre -The Summer Solstice -The Order of Melkizedek

My two cents

I am trying (trying being the operative word) to get more Filipino-penned books on my reading list, as well as reviewed on this blog. With The Book Trail's Advent, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to turn the spotlight on a book penned by a Filipino and set in the Philippines. (This book seems to be hard to find if you're not in the Philippines. I've scoured Amazon, Book Depository and a few other mainstream online book sources and there are so few places to buy this!)

I really enjoyed this collection of three very Filipino stories, all very different, by National Artist of the Philippines for Literature, Nick Joaquin. He is on my list of top Filipino authors ever since I read his short story collection May Day Eve which I absolutely pored over and gave me a better appreciation for my roots.

I am quite excited to share with you some of my thoughts on the stories in this collection, and thereby share a piece of my own culture and history.

The Mass of St. Sylvestre

Setting: Intramuros, Manila, Philippines

The first story, The Mass of St. Sylvestre, in all of eight pages, is a brief history of the emergence of folklore of how pope and confessor St. Sylvestre, whose feast falls on the last day of the year, appears on earth, opens the gates to the archiepiscopal cities, leads a grand procession and celebrates the first Mass. 

Touted as classic Filipino New Year's story, this is part history and part religious lesson melded with the folklore of Old Manila.

Folklore crosses into the mystical and magical when an American soldier, stationed near the ruins of Manila post-war in 1945, shares his recollection of the grand procession in Intramuros in all its glory ... only to realize that what he had witnessed was a mere illusion, or maybe a hallucination.

The detailed descriptions of the procession, the small trivia associated with the ceremony, and of course with a little bit of a folkloric twist, make this short story packed to the rafters for the reader. 

The setting is an important one as it takes place within Intramuros, which translates to "Walled City" in Spanish. The Philippines was a Spanish colony for over 300 years since the 1600s. Intramuros is a hub - the location of the country's capital Manila, guarded by the city's citadel Fort Santiago. It is also the location of many churches, including San Augustine Church, designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

I have personally been to Intramuros many times and there is so much history to take in as one wanders around centuries-old Fort Santiago, the cobblestoned roads of Intramuros, and the beautiful San Agustin Church. I think the following Google Street View tours will give you a better sense of this:

San Agustin Churchbuilt by the Agustinians in 1571.

Cobblestones streets in Intramuros

Baluarte de San Diego, a stone bastion in Intramuros.

The Summer Solstice

Setting: Paco, Manila

The Summer Solstice is a short story about the Tadtarin, a three-day fertility ritual held during the summer solstice. This pre-Hispanic religion celebrates the erotic woman and her dominance over man. The last day of the festival coincides with St. John's Day, highlighting how Catholicism and pagan religions are melded in Filipino belief systems.

A scene from Tadtarin, via Philstar Global
Taking place in the 1850s, Lupeng and her family are set to visit their grandfather on St. John's Day, only to discover that her cook Amada is in a frenzied sexual state. Lupeng speaks to Amada's husband Entoy, who is positively scared of Amada despite it being implied that he wields a heavy hand on his wife. Lupeng learns Amada participated in the Tadtarin ritual and that she is "possessed" with the spirit of the Tadtarin.   

The family runs into the St. John's procession en route, which features an all-male group carrying the image of St. John the Baptist. Lupeng later talks with Guido, her husband's cousin visiting from Europe, who had observed both rituals. Lupeng's modesty and subservience - a mark of a refined woman at the time - is challenged as Guido suggests Lupeng participate in the Tadtarin and even makes a point of it by kissing her feet in adoration. 

Lupeng joins in the final night of the Tadtarin and finds herself tapping into her inner woman. She wields her newly-found (or simply dormant) power of her husband, who reluctantly yet acknowledges and yields to her.

This is a story of juxtapositions - of the passionate female Tadtarin with the male arrogance of St. John's procession, of the power of women over men, of bucking the convention of male dominance, and a return to the primal over societal conventions. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this for its exploration of themes despite its simple storyline. The strong feminist message will likely resonate and challenge readers to understand the precarious balance in which we are in constantly. 


The Order of Melkizedek

Setting: Manila, with mention again of Intramuros

The third story, The Order of Melkizedek, 
is a mini-novella which surprisingly reminded me of a Dan Brown novel. It opens with toothbrush in hand at the Philippine airport, balikbayan Sid Estiva is kidnapped. Stumbling upon a conspiracy which preys on rich matrons and young, impressionable revolutionaries, Sid seeks to expose the inner workings of a secret society headed by a purportedly centuries'-old prophet, Melkizedek.

In a suspenseful turn of events, Sid's investigation is with littered death, pagan religions, plenty of Biblical backstory, suspenseful interviews and confrontations, including the involvement of his own younger sister, Guia. This is partially set in the churches and convents of Intramuros.

I enjoyed this for its exploration of traditional religions with Catholicism and how they can co-exist and even meld together. I also found fascinating the folklore of a man living over centuries, which I know is quite common across cultures.

Of the three, I liked this the least only because I felt it dragged on too long in comparison to the succinctness of the others. I also found some holes in the investigation and wondered how Sid was so easily able to come to making non-obvious connections.


Verdict: This is a crash course in Philippine folklore, religion, and history packed in three short stories. As a Filipino, it gave me a newfound appreciation of the richness of my culture. I encourage everyone to read this, whether you want to read more diversely, want to discover a new Filipino author, or simply read outside of your usual fare. Happy travels!

Nick Joaquin
About Nick Joaquin
Nicomedes Márquez Joaquín (May 4, 1917–April 29, 2004) was a Filipino writer, historian and journalist, best known for his short stories and novels in the English language. He also wrote using the pen name Quijano de Manila. Joaquin was conferred the rank and title of National Artist of the Philippines for Literature. He is considered most important Filipino writer in English, and the third most important overall, after José Rizal and Claro M. Recto.

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